Virtual Light

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Set in a Los Angeles where the rich and powerful hunker down in Stealth Houses protected by armed patrols and a contrasting San Francisco that so far has still defied corporate America, William Gibson’s science-fiction novel virtual Light fascinates with its clever extrapolation of current trends, its uncanny vision, and its plucky protagonists. In typical fashion, Gibson drops his reader straight into the brave new world of the year 2005, which comes complete with its own slang, new designer drugs, and illegal data havens, giving the effect of a fast-forwarded contemporary Amenca.

Stranded in Los Angeles after losing his job as a police officer in Knoxville, Tennessee, Berry Rydell has become one of a legion of private security guards. His chance to star on the hit television show Cops in Trouble evaporates when a female officer turns vigilante against a serial killer of children. So Rydell now cruises the mean streets of the city in a Hotspur Hussar, a fully armored six-wheeler apfly named Gurihead by his pal Joel Sublett. The escapee of a strange fundamentalist sect who sought the Lord’s subliminal message in B-movie after B-movie, Sublett is both a caricature and a walking lexicon of films historic and imaginary, and it takes a trained reader to detect the difference.

Rydell trips up again when he responds too vigorously to a false alarm caused by “The Republic of Desire,” a group of super hackers, and crashes in on a sadomasochistic encounter between a client and her gardener. After he is officially removed from the payroll of IntenSecure, the best arnong Los Angeles’ booming private security

840 Ma gill ’s Literary Annuaf 1994

providers, Rydell is rehired as an independent contractor with the official task of driving Lucius Warbaby, an imposing hulk of a private detective of Asian and African descent. Here and elsewhere, Gibson’s satire works doubly well: He not only outlines existing trends, such as corporate America’s increasing reliance on private security providers, but also transcribes these very real practices onto the world of criminal cartels and their henchmen and enforcers.

Arriving in San Francisco, Rydell soon finds out that his true mission is to help recover a stolen set of sunglasses. Their razor-thin lenses contain a cyberspace databank that holds plans for turning San Francisco into the ultimate corporate themepark. Chevette Washington has purloined the glasses from their Serbian courier (code-named Hans Blix) because his rude come-on at a party offended her. This act of freelance thievery quickly not only ends Chevette’s career as one of the fog city’s fastest bicycle messengers but terminates Blix’s as well.

The main conflict of the novel is thus set between the demands of an ultimately demeaning corporate structure, which sets robotlike efficiency as its goal, and human creativity and spontaneity, which take the latest in technological invention and subvert it for personal satisfaction. The pleasure of the tinkerer who bends a machine to his or her bidding, not merely to follow what it has been programmed to do, ranks very high in Gibson’s world. His perfect symbol is the bike messenger, who joins his or her fine-tuned, muscular body to the ultralight products of a new technology that liberates rather than oppresses. Just as women bicyclists spelled the end of an era of sanctimoniously imposed Puritan decorum at the turn of the nineteenth century, so Gibson’s irreverent Chevette Washington thumbs her nose at the representatives of a global corporate network that demands unquestioning compliance to the tenets of capitalism. Throughout virtual Light, Gibson’s sympathies lie not with his fellow travelers along the information superhighway but with the superhighwaymen.

Rydell and his new employers, Lucius Warbaby and the computer- toting factotum Freddie, first receive a detailed fax and then visit the (almost cleaned up) scene of the...

(The entire section is 1634 words.)

The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Although set in the same technologically stratified world as William Gibson’s earlier novels, Virtual Light presents a much more naturalistic and less hard-edged vision. The story concerns the theft and eventual recovery of a pair of Virtual Light glasses capable of transmitting images directly to the optic nerve. Their ability, though, is not nearly as important as the information the glasses contain: the technical details of a global corporation’s plan to rebuild San Francisco. These two elements of technological intricacy and global corporate domination identify the novel as cyberpunk and form the backdrop for the characters, who only vaguely understand the implications of either the technology or the corporate plotting.

The two protagonists of the story are Berry Rydell and Chevette Washington. They are naïve and trusting individuals trying to make a living, and it is their naïveté that puts them at a disadvantage in a world in which knowledge and distrust mean power and control. Rydell, a former police officer, moved to Los Angeles in the hope that a television show, Cops in Trouble, would solve the problems surrounding a killing in the line of duty. Through chance and bad luck, he finds himself in San Francisco, working for Lucius Warbaby and other renegade security agents and police officers hired by DatAmerica, an information and security broker. Their goal is to locate and retrieve the stolen Virtual Light glasses....

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Virtual Light continues to display Gibson's inventive use of surface texture to create a vivid future world. Details of clothing,...

(The entire section is 262 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Gibson's work provokes the same strong responses generated by punk music and punk fashion. His work attracts an audience beyond those who...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Gibson's early Matrix novels, Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive, created a punk-inspired...

(The entire section is 168 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

If Mona Lisa Overdrive is Gibson's heist caper, then Virtual Light is the cops and robbers story. It plays upon the ambiguities...

(The entire section is 246 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Virtual Light is not directly related either in setting or character to other Gibson works, but it continues to be concerned with the...

(The entire section is 62 words.)


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Sources for Further Study

Byte. XVIII, September, 1993, p.49.

Chicago Tribune. August 8, 1993, XIV, p.1.

The Christian Science Monitor. August 26, 1993, p. 11.

Library Journal. CXVIII, August, 1993, p.159.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 17, 1993, p.13.

New Statesman and Society. VI, September 24, 1993, p.55.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, September 12, 1993, p.36.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, September 6, 1993, p.70.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 1, 1993, p.21.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, August 22, 1993, p.5.